The natural world can be a chaotic place. If you’re a landscape photographer, you’ve probably found yourself taking pictures of scenes that seem too disorganized and overwhelming to work right no matter what you do: forests, canyons, coastlines, and so on. You’re chasing the elusive gem of simplicity within a landscape that is anything but simple. How do you make sense of things and capture good photos anyway?
The Importance of Balance and Simplicity
To me, there are two elements of composition which – implemented properly – are enough to take your photos beyond ordinary levels of quality. They are balance and simplicity. Both of them play into the topic of this article: capturing good photos even in the most chaotic of landscapes.
Balance is about the arrangement of elements in your composition. A photo is balanced when the image’s “visual weight” is evenly dispersed from left to right, as if the photo would stay perfectly level on a fulcrum. Balanced photos feel peaceful and harmonious, as well as deliberate. Although balance is not necessarily better than imbalance – you don’t always want a peaceful, harmonious composition – it is one of the better ways to distill a complex scene into a meaningful image.
Simplicity does not mean that the photo has a small number of elements. Instead, it means that every element included in the composition exists for a reason; you’ve removed as many distractions as possible. The more complex a landscape is, the more distractions there may be. You have to be ruthless about eliminating elements of a photo that take away from your emotional message – even if that emotional message is one of chaos and complexity.
Working with Complex Landscapes
No matter what scene you are photographing, the first question you ask yourself should be the same: What message do you want to convey? That leads to a second question: What decisions do you need to make in order to implement that message?
Every decision in photography – balance or imbalance, over- or under-exposure, f/2.8 or f/8 – tilts certain emotions in your photo one direction or another. If you know clearly what message you want to send, it is as though the perfect answer to all your decisions presents itself immediately. Don’t let the complexity of the scene make this any trickier than normal. Start by choosing an emotional message, and go from there.
In a chaotic landscape, that emotional message might very well be one of chaos. After all, it’s easier to implement your message if it doesn’t wildly conflict with the scene in front of you. Not to mention, of course, that your whole reason for choosing an emotional message usually hinges on the emotions the scene itself made you feel. A tangle of patchy mountaintops is more likely to inspire a feeling of intensity and discord within you than calmness.
So, if you choose to embrace the chaotic nature of the scene, you must remember that simplicity still applies. Viewers are going to look at your photo; as much as you may want to convey a sense of overwhelmingness, you don’t want them to turn away from the image. It still has to be compelling in some way. Even a message of chaos – in fact, especially this sort of message – is easy to ruin with a careless composition.
But what if chaos is not your message, yet you are in a busy landscape? This happens to me most often with forest photography, where I want to capture a peaceful scene, but end up with overwhelming detail that detracts from the photo. Cases like this require a lot more work than usual to simplify the scene.
First, ask yourself if there are any details you can capture that represent the landscape. Rather than focusing on the scene as a whole, pay attention to smaller parts of it. In a difficult-to-photograph forest, maybe it only takes one branch and a few leaves to convey the essence of the scene. Move around to frame that smaller subject rather than the whole.
You can also wait for different weather or lighting conditions to be more conducive to your goal. Although a mid-afternoon forest can be wildly difficult to capture in a straightforward manner, the same is not true at other times. Maybe a single beam of sunlight is landing on a tree, or the background is enveloped in morning mist. And don’t forget to face different directions; you may be able to replace a jumble of shadows with stark silhouettes that work much better in an image.
Beyond that, try using the technical side of photography to your advantage. Use a longer lens to isolate small segments of the whole, or use a wider aperture to blur the background and focus attention on a particular subject. Even shutter speed can be a big help here; try panning if you are photographing a moving subject to melt away its surroundings, or turn the whole photo into beautiful streaks of color.
If all else fails, you can still take pictures with many elements that have a harmonious message. It’s just a bit harder than normal. But think about certain famous photos you’ve seen – photos like Ansel Adams’s “Clearing Winter Storm” or Andreas Gursky’s “99 Cent.” These are complex photos, but the photographers didn’t lose control of their compositions, and the images don’t feel overwhelming as a result.
This is largely about framing a deliberate-seeming photo. Some of that is down to balance, one of the best ways to create harmonious images in an inharmonious place. But other elements of composition also help here. Pay attention to things like exits/entrances in the photo (i.e., keeping the edges relatively clear and non-distracting) as well as “visual puns” that make the photo more than just the sum of its parts. This is something you’ll often see in good street photography, like in the guide Elizabeth wrote a couple weeks ago.
As much as I think any scene can result in a good photo, some places are undoubtedly better for photography than others. The subject you pick matters, and some landscapes (even truly beautiful ones) are very difficult to photograph, often because they are so complex. That’s not to say it can’t be done – but that deliberateness and intention matter more in busy landscapes than usual (and they usually matter quite a lot).
One option is to embrace the message of the scene and aim for intense, chaotic, crowded photos. You’re toeing a tricky line here, with any lack of care turning the photo from beautifully messy to just… messy. The biggest tip I can give in this case is to keep asking yourself questions about the photo’s emotion and making decisions to serve that emotion. And keep in mind that viewers are looking at your photo without any context at first, and you don’t want their immediate reaction to be rejection.
The other way to go is to aim for more straightforward, harmonious compositions anyway. This often involves finding a single element of the scene and isolating it with your camera position, lens, aperture, shutter speed, or any other creative tool. Other times, you can simply wait for a convoluted landscape to simplify itself under new weather and lighting conditions. And, last but not least, you can try taking an intricate photo of the scene that includes a large number of elements – but doesn’t appear busy because you used tools like balance and breathing space to frame a highly deliberate composition.
Hopefully, this gave you some good ideas for photographing busy landscape scenes. If you have recommendations or ideas of your own, please let me know below in the comments!